There are retro games, and there are RETRO games. Volgarr the Viking comes out in an age of pixel-art homages of varying quality to the games of yesteryear, and it gives the impression it was developed in the 80’s, rather than just pay respect to them. Volgarr will remind you much of Ghosts N’ Goblins and Rastan, and if you enjoyed those two and did not find them too frustrating, Volgarr might be your cup of tea. A cup of tea full of spikes, angry lizardmen and shrieking, homing mines.
A side-scrolling, tough as nails action platformer, Volgarr plays out in nicely drawn (and obviously modern) 16-bit scenarios, ranging from forests and underwater temples to graveyards and volcanoes, accompanied by suitable soundtracks and crunchy sound effects for when you hit something or are hit by something. An aspect I’d like to put in the limelight is the tutorial: the different way the game’s mechanics function are fluidly shown to you from the start, as the game induces you into discovering them by putting you into situations where you either need to use them or they are inadvertently shown. On the first world there are two cases which I’m particularly fond of: you learn your spear, when jutting out of a wall, blocks projectiles by using it in a section that’s necessary to go up and then watching the projectiles of the monster above it shatter against it; and you learn that your shield blocks incoming attacks while on your back, when you’re climbing, when you go up a rope with the dart-spitting turrets behind you. This, and nearly all of the other game’s mechanics, are shown intuitively, without you having to pour over a menu or have a drawn-out introductory tutorial.
The game’s controls are simple: you can chop at enemies with a sword, crouching. standing or dangling from a rope, and deliver a spinning attack mid-jump or a downward thrust by aiming down. Jumps, not unlike in the classic Castlevania games, can’t have their direction changed mid-air, and you’ll only be able to swap directions with your double-jump – this surprisingly leads to a precise, fluid system, where you can nearly always be sure of whether a jump will hit where you want it to or not, just by looking – and you’ll come to love it the way it is. You can also throw spears, which can be used as climbing platforms when thrown against walls, or super-charged into their piercing form, should you have the blue shield.
Volgarr’s durability comes in the form of the equipment he finds, which are: a wooden shield, which blocks a few attacks before breaking; a metallic blue shield, which can block indefinite attacks and projectiles; a helmet, which prevents the loss of your shield if you’re hit while wearing it; and a flaming sword, which increases your attack range and damage. Getting hit while wearing these means you’ll lose one or more of them. Opening more chests after you’re fully geared will give you Thor’s Blessing, an extra layer of protection which damages those nearby, and further chests will grant you tokens that open the alternate worlds – harder, and which if you complete will lead you to the alternate ending. A cake to you if you manage that.
Progress in Volgarr will feel truncated, as the protagonist – with no protection other than the pieces of armor he finds and likely quickly loses – dies whenever you fail to take into consideration a monster, projectile or the distance of a leap. You’ll be sent back to the start or your last checkpoint, nude but for your sword and loincloth, and the repetition of the earlier phases means you’ll gradually develop a sort of muscle-memory, perfectly gliding through these sections until you reach a new roadblock. The satisfaction of clearing even only a part of a world flawlessly, chopping a lizard’s head mid jump, throwing a spear at another one before you land and, after landing, kneeling and splitting a snake in two, all in the frame of a couple of seconds, is immense. This satisfaction will lead you to pursue perfection in the other segments you’re still faulty at, clearing an entire level like clockwork.
The game offers extra incentive for those who wish to re-visit it by means of a timer and the alternate worlds. You can test your grit by speedrunning the game or trying to complete it with the most gold gathered. Completing the game itself should take you a couple dozen of hours, if not more, if only because you’ll have to do each section multiple times, until you are comfortable enough with it to not die.
Volgarr the Viking is a fantastic, fine-tuned game that does everything it sets out to do, but make no mistake: it is not a game for everyone. Fans of games which punish you harshly for your mistakes, such as Dark Souls, might find solace here, but Volgarr is truly difficult in the most 80’s sense you can think of. Under the violent, 16-bit worlds you must cleave through is a meticulously crafted game, which rewards practice and tenacity. Those that manage to beat the game, or even only a few of its levels, will feel a sense of completion and as if they’ve become master of something.
It also has the most metal game trailer I’ve ever seen: